This article is a response to “The red sag”—the cover piece from our April 2017 issue
Breaking up is hard to do. The Gang of Four, who left Labour in 1981 to found the SDP, soon learnt as much. Their dream of “breaking the mould of British politics” was shattered in 1983: the cruel logic of first-past-the-post saw just six SDP MPs returned. They failed despite distinct advantages: they were heavyweight politicians and familiar faces. They could claim a distinctive position in the political centre. And they could forge an alliance with the existing Liberal Party, which brought with it a modicum of organisational strength and a modest electoral base.
Ross McKibbin highlights several serious problems for Labour, ranging from the long-term societal to more immediate concerns about Jeremy Corbyn. There is no doubt its present plight is serious: the recent defeat in Copeland was the worst by-election loss to be suffered by the main opposition party at the hands of the government since 1945. But it is quite a leap to jump, as McKibbin does, from acknowledging Labour’s current problems to proposing that the great bulk of MPs should respond by jettisoning not only Corbyn but the voluntary party that elected him.
Any attempt by Labour MPs today to form a breakaway party is unlikely to enjoy any of those advantages that the SDP enjoyed. Profile? There is hardly a single well-known politician among them. Last month YouGov asked over 3,000 respondents about 20 “leading” Labour politicians. Apart from Corbyn and his immediate predecessor, Ed Miliband, only four had been heard of by a majority. One, London mayor, Sadiq Khan, is not even in the Commons. Another, Andy Burnham, is running to be Mayor of Greater Manchester and will likely exit the Commons soon. The remaining two—Hilary Benn (60 per cent had heard of him) and Yvette Cooper (59 per cent) are middle-ranking ex-ministers, but no more, and neither is especially popular—only 22 per cent of those who had heard of Benn said they liked him; the equivalent figure was just 16 per cent for Cooper. None of this should come as a surprise. Corbyn initially won the leadership because none of his opponents could outgun him in the popularity and charisma stakes. And while charisma is always a desirable quality in a leader, it is essential for anyone trying to establish the credibility of a new party.
In the SDP’s day, a hole was opening up in the centre of British politics, in between Labour’s early 1980s march to the left, and the increasingly “Thatcherite” policies being pursued by the Conservative government. While Corbyn is also meant to be taking his party to the left in truth his vision for Britain is far from clear; meanwhile, Theresa May has, rhetorically at least, revealed an empathy and understanding of the concerns of the so-called “left behind,” presenting herself as a prime minister for the whole country. Meanwhile, any social democratic party in these post-crash days has to persuade voters it can tame the tiger of globalised capitalism so that it serves the interests of the less well-off. There is little sign that Labour’s parliamentary ranks have a strategy for that. But what of a breakaway’s electoral prospects? The Liberal Democrats are weaker than the 1981 Liberals, and so would bring less to the table even if an understanding could be formed. The new party would have to make its own electoral fortunes. That will be difficult. Last August YouGov asked voters both how they would react to a breakaway formed by the Labour left, and to one forged by more moderate members. In both cases around 20 per cent said they would vote Labour while only 13-14 per cent would back the breakaway. That latter figure is half what the Liberal/SDP Alliance scored in 1983, and could easily deliver a mere handful of MPs.
Not least of the reasons why a breakaway could perform so poorly is that there are still many Labour supporters—nearly one in three—who would vote for the “official” party regardless of who was running it. Voters may be more fickle these days, but there is still enough loyalty to make breaking up very hard to do.